Date first published: 18/05/2023
Key sectors: all
Key risks: political instability; policy uncertainty; civil unrest; coup d’état
Pita Limjaroenrat – the leader of the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) – has claimed the right to form the next government following the party’s unprecedented victory in the 14 May general election. On 18 May alongside seven other opposition parties, Pita unveiled his prospective coalition government which together commands a solid majority in the House of Representatives and includes the runner-up Pheu Thai Party and minor pro-democracy parties. A record voter turnout of 75.2 per cent at the election delivered a stunning rebuke of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his military-backed parties after nine years in power and may usher in a new era in Thai politics.
Why it matters
MFP’s election victory marks a fundamental turning point. Not only did it rout the ruling conservative coalition, but it also broke the domination of the billionaire Shinawatra clan – whose successive iterations of populist parties had won every general election since 2001. MFP’s ambitious institutional reform agenda, which includes breaking up commercial monopolies, reducing the role of the military in domestic politics and amending the country’s strict lese-majeste laws – long deemed impossible – will no doubt face stiff resistance from the conservative military-royalist establishment. Nonetheless, their victory signals that public discourse over the role of the monarchy may no longer be the political third rail it has historically been.
The military casts a long shadow in Thai politics. Two Shinawatra prime ministers were ousted in military coups – Thaksin in 2006 and his sister Yingluck in 2014. Prolonged tensions between pro-democracy and populist parties against the country’s military-royalist establishment have fuelled repeated waves of political instability and social unrest. Following a strong showing by the Future Forward Party – a predecessor to MFP – in the 2019 general election, the Constitutional Court dissolved the party and barred its leadership from politics for 10 years. This further compounded Thailand’s democratic regression following the 2014 coup and prompted the 2020-2021 wave of anti-government protests. Many young protesters have since joined the MFP and are poised to enter the House of Representatives following the 14 May general election.
Despite the prospective coalition’s popular mandate, MFP’s ambitious reform agenda will likely complicate efforts to form a government as under the current military-drafted constitution, the military-appointed Senate retains the power to elect a prime minister in a bicameral vote. The party has vowed against working with military-aligned parties which leaves very few options besides relying on their mandate to sway enough necessary votes in the Senate. Nonetheless, several senators have ruled out voting for Pita, questioning MFP’s so-called anti-monarchist agenda. Whichever way this goes, the situation is likely to be precarious in the coming weeks, with elevated risks of political instability and civil unrest. Moving forward with reforms to the military and lese-majeste laws will risk incurring the wrath of the country’s powerful military-royalist establishment. However, a rejection of the MFP-led coalition in the Senate will risk unravelling Thai politics and returning mass street protests.